HELENA, Mont. — Year-end congressional votes and wrangling over payroll taxes and an oil pipeline project through eastern Montana are stoking the heated Senate race between incumbent Jon Tester and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg as it heads into 2012.
Rehberg, a Republican, pressed Tester last week to vote for legislation passed by the House to extend a middle class tax cut and force a quick decision on the Keystone XL pipeline — a provision Rehberg himself had helped get into the legislation.
But Tester is turning the tables after the House Republicans and Rehberg rejected a Senate compromise backed by Tester that also includes the Keystone project.
The Democrat called Rehberg's vote "crazy" as he attacked two issues that can loom large in Montana: tax cuts and resource development. Tester argued that House Republicans are missing a chance to reach a deal.
"I just think that once again, in this particular case, the party bosses told them how to vote, and Rehberg voted. I think it was mistake," Tester said. "I think you have to do what is best for Montana, and not best for your party."
Tester is facing a stiff challenge from Rehberg in a 2012 race that is already among the most watched — and most expensive — in the nation since both parties are vying for control of the U.S. Senate. It has turned negative early as third-party groups coming in with television attack advertisements.
Rehberg, in explaining his Tuesday vote, countered that the Senate version to extend the tax cut another 60 days isn't good enough. He and other House Republicans say they want to talk about a long-term extension rather than waiting until after the holidays.
And even as he rejected the Senate version of the Keystone provision that could jump-start development of a project important to eastern Montana oil development, Rehberg lauded the chamber for supporting the proposal.
The Republican's campaign manager, Erik Iverson, said the pipeline was not the issue hanging up the deal, and predicted the differences will get resolved.
"If it was just a straight up-and-down vote on Keystone, it would have passed both houses by now," Iverson said. "This thing is going to get done. The one constant has been the fact that both Democrats and Republicans, when push comes to shove, are going to vote for Keystone."
Iverson argued that Tester has not done as much as either Rehberg or U.S. Sen. Max Baucus in attaching the pipeline to the tax talks. Baucus, among those in the Senate negotiating the bipartisan deal last week in that chamber, advocated for inclusion of the pipeline. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is among those not happy that House Republicans spurned it.
"It's the same pattern every time: The far right-wingers threaten to shut down the government, default on the full faith and credit of our country or raise taxes on the middle class, unless they get their way," Baucus said in a Wednesday letter to supporters.
All three members of Montana's delegation are back in the state for Christmas. There are no certain plans to convene again next week in Washington, D.C., to resolve the issue before the tax holiday expires Jan. 1.
Tester said he doesn't think the House Republicans will win anything with their current tactic.
"It doesn't make sense to me at all, even from a political sense. I don't see what they get out of it," Tester said.